Scanners, once high-end accessories used solely by art directors and graphics professionals, are getting cheaper all the time. They're not quite at the "what, you don't have one?" level of ubiquity that color printers have reached, but the latest arrivals suggest that day may not be far off when they'll be commodities bundled with new computers, just like cheapo speakers and quasi-useless encyclopedia CD-ROMs.
Storm's EasyPhoto SmartPage Pro and the Umax PageOffice IIC are the Toyota Tercels of the scanner world. The $300 Visioneer PaperPort Strobe is more like a Lexus; it's a lot more stylish and works better, but its price alone ensures it's not for everyone.
These two low-end competitors are roughly twice the Strobe's size, don't look pretty and won't break any speed records, but they have the features you'll need most and do a respectable job at a bargain price.
Think of the SmartPage Pro ($200) as a basic photo scanner and the PageOffice IIC ($180) as more of an office-style scanner for inexpensive copying, fax and optical character-recognition (OCR) applications. Each scanner can do the other's job, but don't expect dazzling results from either.
Both scanners took less than five minutes to install and performed well in low-resolution mode and in 300 x 600 dots-per-inch high-resolution mode, with the "24-bit" PageOffice churning out an 8-by-10-inch photograph in 31/2 minutes and the "30-bit" SmartPage in 41/2 . (The "bitness" reflects how many colors the scanner can capture; 24 bits equals 16.7 million colors, while 30 bits is up to a billion.)
Storm sells the SmartPage Pro short by marketing its latest desktop model as an inexpensive alternative to Visioneer's tiny and versatile speed demon. It isn't. Storm, the company that brought photo scanning to the masses, essentially repackaged its groundbreaking and well-designed EasyPhoto Reader into a larger format that adds OCR - turning the images of words on a scanned-in document into actual text - and potential home-office functions.
The same EasyPhoto Workshop editing software that was a bargain and impressive on Storm's $100 EasyPhoto Reader is downright disappointing on a $200 SmartPage desktop unit. While fairly easy to understand and functional, its features are spare. Fortunately, Storm also bundles the more-powerful Adobe PhotoDeluxe image editor.
SmartPage includes Xerox TextBridge OCR software, but it's poorly integrated; you have to launch it and then scan documents directly into the TextBridge program. The Umax scanner allows users to drag and drop scanned documents into their favorite text-editing program, with the OCR work done automatically.
Umax, apparently unable to beat the competition at a bargain price, joined with Visioneer by adopting a scaled-down version of the PaperPort's superbly designed software interface. While it doesn't have all the nifty features found on the Strobe's software package, the PageOffice version is useful, logical and easy to understand. Users who find themselves wanting more are given the opportunity to upgrade to Visioneer's latest PaperPort Deluxe 5.1 software.
The most annoying PageOffice flaw is its page-sizing feature: The unit can't sense what size paper or photo you're scanning, so you have to hand-adjust it for letter- or legal-size paper, photos and so on.
The SmartPage and PageOffice are both decent scanners for the price and good choices if you want a scanner for either photo scanning or office use, but not both. But if you have the extra money to spare, buy the Lexus and enjoy the ride.